Selection by Adriana Kuri Alamillo
Crafting the Contemporary

“Craft is a broad and slippery word,” 1 with many associations. It can be used to designate a type of object, material or historical relation and frequently alludes to the handmade and domestic. “A form of making which generally produces an object that has a function,” 2 that has stretched past those limits to encompass types of making that touch on contemporary artistic production both in conflict and harmony.

Historically, craft and art were seen as part of the same form of production, for before the 1400’s, medieval European workshops were all composed of guilds of craftsmen. In the early 15th century though, Florentine intellectuals began placing importance on individual creativity, with painters petitioning their patrons to pay them according to merit. These makers became artists, while makers who remained in their collective workshops were deemed artisans. In the mid-1800’s artists turned to making work that was not considered within the parameters of the ‘fine’ arts, thus questioning the boundaries between craft and art. The Arts and Crafts Movement was born because of the lesser status afforded to certain mediums and its founders based their production on values concerned with the effects of industrialization on design and traditional craft, striving to revive and preserve techniques of handmade production. 3 The Arts and Crafts Movement and its concerns lasted into the 20th century to become integrated with Modernism. The boundaries between craft and art became increasingly blurred, particularly at the Bauhaus in Germany, in which artists and designers consistently integrated craft and industrial practices into their work. They leveled the distinction between fine and applied arts by unifying the arts through craft and their later focus on reestablishing the artist’s contact with the world of mechanical production. 4

Contemporary artists employ craft in multiple ways, purposefully transcending boundaries by spotlighting historic hierarchies embedded in the use of certain materials and techniques, while contemporary craftspeople have adopted conceptual art approaches of their own.
Craft can refer to types of objects made from a host of specific materials—particularly ceramics, fiber, glass, metal, or wood. These materials can be deployed functionally or conceptually but have nonetheless been categorized as craft throughout the years. Mónica Castillo’s Modelo para autorretrato III y representación [Model for Self-Portrait III and Representation] undermines the tradition of portraiture in painting through its use of fiber and crochet, unraveling the hierarchy that positioned painting as art and textile as craft. Hannah Wilke’s porcelain sculptures in Untitled (white) evoke the idea of shells, flowers and female genitalia all at once; thus employing a feminist visual icon and a purposeful use of craft material to subvert her male contemporaries’ obsession with grids and systems through the works’ delicate and organic folds. Olafur Eliasson’s use of cardboard and paper folding to create 3D Fivefold Symmetry unsettles some of the formality of the piece precisely because of the use of a simple and familiar material. By recalling traditional Chinese paper folding (zhenzhi), Eliasson’s work continues to reflect on how space is made in art and craft from outside the Western tradition.
Julia Bryan-Wilson expresses that “craft draws its very strength from its anachronistic quality and its ties to traditions, both its adherence to conventional artisanal labour and also its more messy reinventions.” 5 This idea of working with tradition and heritage whilst maintaining a conversation with its use and meaning in the contemporary moment can be seen in Andisheh Avini’s Crawl. The artist employs traditional Iranian marquetry to explore the duality of his personal identity through combining and juxtaposing Iranian icons and motifs with Western traditions of minimalism and abstraction. Santiago Borja’s Diván [Couch] documents his intervention into Freud’s studio and iconic therapy couch. Through covering the couch with textiles created in collaboration with the Wixarika (Huichol) community, Borja makes an analogy between the Wixarika’s interpretation of the world through dreams and Freud’s psychoanalytical mapping of the conscious and unconscious; 6 while also undermining imposed cultural hierarchies. Yoshihiro Suda’s flower in Spring of Wood is skillfully rendered in the Japanese wood carving technique of netsuke, miniature sculptures created to accompany traditional dress. Though an homage to this practice, Suda’s pieces, strategically placed in the cracks and pockmarks of architecture aim to change the viewer’s perspective by encouraging them to see things they might otherwise miss.
Handcrafting and what the renowned Bauhaus student and teacher Anni Albers called ‘tactile sensibility’ have always been thoroughly interconnected with craft. Especially after industrialization and the rise of machine mass production that “saves us endless labour and drudgery; but, Janus faced, it also bars us from taking part in the forming of material and leaves idle our sense of touch (…) we touch things to assure ourselves of reality.” Gabriel Kuri, Pia Camil and Mike Kelley all intentionally make, repurpose or have made for them objects by hand, yet the presence of that hand serves a different purpose within each of their practices. Gabriel Kuri’s four laboriously hand woven gobelins that make up Gobelino políptico franja magenta (aeropuerto) [Magenta stripe polyptych gobelin tapestry (airport)] highlight the residues of human interactions through the time-consuming reproduction of a disposable, everyday receipt. Completed in a traditional Guadalajara style by various weavers, Kuri’s tapestries question the established tenets of consumerism and temporality in contemporary life. Pia Camil’s Espectacular Telón Pachuca I y II [Spectacular Curtain Pachuca I and II] appropriates billboard signs and symbols into hand-dyed and stitched canvas curtains in an effort to decelerate the process of mass cultural production through handmade craft. Mike Kelley’s found and collected discarded tokens of childhood retain their hand-crafted aesthetic, whilst being intervened in a way that strips them of their nostalgic associations to innocence. In Untitled, Kelley sewed two stuffed bunnies together creating a creature that could be nightmarish or could be a sexual burlesque. His assault on ‘high’ culture through material use and the handmade makes a mockery of the promethean male artist.
The materials related to craft, as well as the creative processes that have informed the way it is been defined carry with them an association with the domestic and therefore the feminine and potentially decorative. These materials and activities are employed and redeployed by contemporary artists. Roy Lichtenstein’s five panel Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior depicts a luxurious modern room in a medium meant to line the wall of a room itself. Lichtenstein forms part of the continuing conversation William Morris began with his wallpapers as part of the Arts and Crafts Movement by materially forging a connection with the domestic space and craft. In María Ezcurra Lucotti’s Divergencias negra [Black Divergences] the black nylon socks and embroidery hoops permit her to revise, exhibit and alter the implications that femininity carries with it. The sculpture’s materiality creates an association with the domestic sphere allowing Lucotti to expose the relations between what we use to cover our bodies and the cultural baggage those objects communicate. Untitled by Peter Fischli and David Weiss presents the artists’ avatars, Rat and Bear, in a practically life-size installation that brings the work into the realm of the domestic through the rag puppets and piled blankets. Through this piece they propose a transformation to the commonplace, reviewing everyday banality and attempting a reversal of values and hierarchies. What-If Could-Be forms part of Rosemarie Trockel’s ongoing series of knitting pictures. The machine knitted wool works purposely combine ‘female craft’ with ‘male machine production’, therefore ironically criticizing the roles women are and have been placed into in society and art. Trockel creates twists and turns around the prejudices embedded in the supposedly domestic material she employs, almost as if Trockel were asking… “what if” craft “could be” more?

“Craft is currently being viewed on a much broader front, going beyond the studio crafts to embrace every kind of making.” 8 The ways in which craft is defined or designated don’t and can’t fit clearly into perfectly delineated categories precisely because craft is constantly changing, informed by history and an essential part of the contemporary moment. Craft is more than its definitions across multiple registers. It exists as a concept, a medium, an inherent part of all skilled artistic production and a process incorporated seamlessly into making. So, even if the art versus craft debate lives on the truth is that “if art is seen as a technical system in which skill enchants us, [then] the term craft is surely a component of what Alfred Gell calls ‘the technology of enchantment’.” 9 Thus, through it all, the boundary defying artists engaging with craft are indeed crafting the contemporary.

Text by Adriana Kuri Alamillo, Curatorial Assitant.

1 Joyce Lovelace, “Craft: Seriously, What Does the Word Mean?”, American Craft Council, October 5, 2018, https://craftcouncil. org/magazine/article/craft-seriously-what-does-word-mean (Quote by Fabio Fernández, artist; past executive director, Society of Arts + Crafts, Boston)
2 “Art Term, Craft”, Tate, April 7, 2020, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/craft
3 “The Arts & Crafts Movement”, The Art Story, The Art Story Foundation, April 11, 2020, https://www.theartstory.org/move ment/arts-and-crafts/
4 “Bauhaus”, The Art Story, The Art Story Foundation, April 11, 2020, https://www.theartstory.org/movement/bauhaus/
5 Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Eleven (Contradictory) Propositions in Response to the Question: What is Contemporary Craft?” in Craft: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Tanya Harrod (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018), 65. 6 Catalina Lozano, “Santiago Borja – Divan: Free-Floating Attention Piece”, Freud Museum, Freud Museum London, 2010, https://www.freud.org.uk/exhibitions/santiago-borja-divan/ 7 Anni Albers, “Tactile Sensibility” in Craft: Documents of Contemporary Art, 27-30.
8 Tanya Harrod, “Introduction // Craft Over and Over Again,” in Craft: Documents of Contemporary Art, 16.
9 Ibidem, 18.
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